By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Jennifer Aniston sure could use some friends in Life of Crime. Alas, no one is there for her.
But as has often been the case since the former small-screen favorite, always easily sympathetic, became a big-screen lead, she transcends the material.
Set in the late ’70s, Life of Crime is a crime comedy based on The Switch (1978), by the late crime novelist Elmore Leonard.
Quite a few of Leonard’s crime novels have been turned into movies, including Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Freaky Deaky, 52 Pick-Up, and Stick.
Life of Crime may not be the worst of them but lands quite a distance from the best.
What Life of Crime is is the technical prequel to Rum Punch, which writer-director Quentin Tarantino adapted into Jackie Brown.
Aniston stars as Mickey Dawson, the Detroit socialite wife of a wealthy, unfaithful husband.
When she is kidnapped, her husband, Frank Taylor, the corrupt real-estate developer played by Tim Robbins, refuses to pay the $1-million ransom declared by her kidnappers. Their threat to him is that they have information about his illegal dealings and offshore accounts.
The small-time, first-time kidnappers, Louis and Ordell — played respectively by John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey (previously Mos Def) -– were portrayed by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown.
But what the get-rich-quick schemers didn’t slow down long enough to find out about their target was that Taylor has been traveling to Florida to be with his mistress, Melanie, played by Isla Fisher (and by Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown), rather than on business trips as he has been claiming.
And because Frank intends to marry Melanie and has already filed divorce papers, he’s not really interested in paying alimony, so why bother responding to the demands of his wife’s captors?
As Mickey comes to realize the shape her marriage is in, she grows closer to Louis, whose obvious feelings for her clearly worry Ordell whenever he considers what will happen when push comes to shove.
But Aniston and Hawkes don’t have the requisite chemistry to use this variation of the Stockholm Syndrome –- the film’s most interesting subplot -– to raise the film’s game.
There’s also collaborator Richard (Mark Boone Jr.), the racist neo-Nazi lunatic in whose house the kidnappers have decided to hide.
And let’s not forget about Will Forte, surprising us with his range once again -– as the ex-“Saturday Night Live” cast member did so memorably in Nebraska — as Marshall, the family friend and cowardly but conflicted would-be suitor of Mickey who witnesses the abduction and does nothing to stop or even report it.
Director Daniel Schechter (Goodbye Baby, Supporting Characters), who also wrote the screenplay full of Leonard’s signature plot twists and betrayals, employs a light touch but shows his inexperience when the promising first half doesn’t build to anything more interesting.
And the abrupt “Is That All There Is?” ending, both desperate and disappointing, allows the film to (like the kidnappers’ plan) spin out of control and then collapse like a house of cards in a windstorm.
Aniston and Leonard (the latter having passed away last year — this was the last movie project he was involved in) were two of the film’s eight producers. So we can give them partial credit for the performances being at least adequate all around, and for the dialogue early on that gets our hopes up.
But we can also assign them partial blame for Life of Crime lacking the laughs to deliver as a comedy and the intensity to score as a drama, and for the fact that we look around in vain for someone to root for in more than a perfunctory way.
So we’ll kidnap 2 stars out of 4 for the lamentably lightweight Life of Crime. There’s plenty of crime, just not enough life.